MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Even when he’s not at a game, Bobby Wright still finds a way to coach his team.
The Central High boys coach missed his second straight game Wednesday, as his team took on Spain Park in the Class 6A central regional semifinals. But his wife, Carolyn, who sat on the Red Devils’ bench, made sure to keep him up to date, talking to him on the phone twice — once at halftime and once in the middle of the third quarter.
The adjustments he relayed to his wife paid immediate dividends, as Central upped its level of play in the final period to put Spain Park away 53-39.
After the victory, Carolyn Wright finally disclosed what has kept her husband away the past two games: pinched nerves, which has left him unable to control the right side of his body. But she took solace in the fact he’s in the hands of those at the Hughston Clinic in Columbus, where he’s “getting three sessions of therapy per day.”
“They're doing a fantastic job of trying to get him back,” she said, “and he's working very hard to get back.”
She declined to set a timetable for his return, however.
“We don't think he'll be back Friday,” Carolyn said. “If it is, it will be a miracle. But whatever (happens), we know that he's going to have us prepared.”
The Red Devils (27-1) looked sluggish early on, though.
Central held leads in the first quarter (7-4) and at halftime (14-13) in spite of itself. And it was a first half that both teams would rather forget, as the first 16 minutes showcased a pitiful display of marksmanship. The Red Devils converted on just 11.1 percent (2-for-18) of its 2-point attempts. Spain Park wasn't much better, making just 4 of 25 attempts (16 percent) of its shots inside the arc.
Central’s saving grace in the first half?
The free throw line.
Of the Red Devils’ 14 points in the first two stanzas, nine came from the charity stripe.
But Central orchestrated a massive turnaround in the second half, as its offense started to get into a rhythm. The Red Devils hit on 68 percent (17-for-25) of their 2-point field goals and half of their 3-pointers (2 of 4).
“We actually told them don’t take a 3,” Carolyn Wright said. “Our guy in the box was yelling ‘Devin (Pugh)! Devin! Devin!’ because we spread the floor and we wanted to take it inside. I was like, ‘Coach, he felt it.’ When they feel it, so long as they’re knocking it down, you have the green light.”
That improvement wasn’t enough to distance themselves from the Jaguars (20-11) after three quarters, though. Holding a narrow 31-28 advantage entering the final period, Central needed a spark.
Anthony Moore provided the lighter fluid.
Out ahead of the competition on a fast break, the junior threw down a thunderous dunk, bringing the crowd to its feet and pushing the Red Devils ahead 33-28 less than a minute into the fourth quarter. Those were the first points of an 11-0 run that effectively put the game out of reach.
While Moore declined to comment on the dunk afterward — simply shrugging his shoulders and smiling — Carolyn Wright didn’t downplay its importance in bringing the team to life.
“Yeah, they play to the crowd. They like to excite the crowd,” she said. “All year long we've been filling up the gym because we've had blockfests, dunkfests, so they get into that mode — it takes that to get them into the game and get their adrenaline flowing.”
It was exactly the type of play that Wright was hoping to see early in the fourth quarter so they didn’t have to rely on late-game heroics.
“We got a timeout and we told them, ‘Look, you got to put it all on the floor right here. You got to play better defense. You got to move your feet,’” she said. “We talked to them about taking the dribble away from the defense and stop getting the charge calls. They fixed that situation. We just told them to step their game up and play your game. They came out with a vengeance.”
It wasn’t hard to tell.
The Red Devils scored 22 points in the final eight minutes — doubling up the Jaguars’ 11 — with much of the credit going to Moore and Tavare Igus. The pair shared top scoring honors in the contest, with each scoring 11, and both did their heavy lifting in the fourth quarter, as Igus had eight points and Moore had seven. Neither could say they had the most well-rounded effort of Central’s victory. That honor goes to Devin Pugh. The senior scored 10 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and had six steals.
Thanks to their dominant fourth quarter, Central clinched a spot in the regional final on Friday, where it will take on Carver of Montgomery. Carver decimated Wetumpka in the other regional semifinal Wednesday, beating the Indians 65-27. The Red Devils have the benefit of advance scouting, arriving in time to watch the Wolverines' lopsided victory.
Wright is well-aware what lies ahead.
“We'll have our hands full,” she said, “but we'll come ready to play.”
They’ll do so not only because they want to seal a spot in the state tournament, which goes to the winner of the 11:40 a.m. matchup Friday.
They’ll do so because they’re playing for a coach they don’t want to let down.
“He knows (the game) like the back of his hands, so to step in his shoes and get the job done the way he would do it puts a lot of pressure on the entire coaching staff, as well as the boys,” Carolyn said. “We know what he expects. He taught it to us well and we just try to carry out the things he would have us do.”
Wednesday at Alabama State
Spain Park 4 9 15 11—39
Central 7 7 17 22—53
Spain Park (39)
Anthony Smiley 9, Phillip Brown 8, Austin Wiley 8, John Segrest 8, Antonio Moss 4, Malik Blanchard 2.
Anthony Moore 11, Tavare Igus 11, Devin Pugh 10, Tre Todd 8, Marterrious Rogers 6, Tionne Williams 5, Quandarius Weaver 2.
Records: Central, 27-1; Spain Park, 20-11. Next: Central, vs. Carver; Spain Park, season over.